At the end of the summer I can be certain that on the first cool sleeping night, when early fall is in the air, I will have my prototypical school anxiety dream. It’s a lock. I was predicting this annual event last week to an HR colleague who said: “I thought I was the only one who had those.”
Judging from the informal survey I have conducted over the years with friends, family and clients, school anxiety dreams – a subset of performance anxiety dreams – are universal. This shouldn’t be surprising since school is one of the first places that we experience the phenomenon of performance anxiety. School is the perfect backdrop for our dreams about not being prepared.
Last night was the night. It was a cool fall-like night, and in my dream I was not only lacking certain essential articles of clothing but I was also reporting for school 12 days late and – yes – I could not find my home room. Sound familiar?
Fortunately, there are built-in safety features that minimize the distress caused by these nocturnal excursions into humiliation, mayhem and antisocial behavior. Dreams are ephemeral: we are protected by the fact that we don’t remember most of what happened. You have to consciously work at it if you want to hold on to the contents of a dream. The default is a rapid evaporation of the images and events. Even if we do remember some of the dream, its exaggerated weirdness and improbability make it unbelievable and therefore easier to let it go.
So where am I going with this? I am interested in how our unconscious dreams at night might help us understand our daydreams, the stream of automatic thought that is the constant backdrop of daily waking life. I am particularly interested in how we can become more mindful of worry, our most corrosive and persistent daydream.
Worry can be like a bad dream that we are having trouble waking up from or dismissing. We are imagining, or daydreaming about, all the bad things that might happen to us or the people we care about in the future. Like our sleeping dreams, these worry daydreams are a product of our imaginations, but they are harder to dismiss. They run in the background as we try to work, play, love and interact with others in the real and present moment. Worry interferes with our relationships, our peace of mind and our ability to get things done by removing us from the physical world of people and things and tasks and centering us in the private world of our most distressing thoughts. Worry takes us out of the real world where we can achieve something of value and leads us into feelings of isolation and helplessness.
Talking with a trusted friend or colleague is a highly effective way to way to wake yourself up from the daydream of worry. My last blog, “Never Worry Alone”, focused on how Massachusetts General Hospital trains staff to avoid the most damaging effects of worrying about work issues by reaching out to their colleagues.
When it’s not a specific work issue or you can’t talk to someone you can also try observing your flow of worried thoughts the way you might observe a dream you happen to remember. You observe in a way that notices and accepts the imaginary events for what they are: thoughts passing through a brain that is constantly conjuring possible (and impossible) scenarios while you sleep and while you are awake. You can notice the thoughts and then turn your attention to the physical world in front of your eyes. You can wake up and engage with the day that has been given to you.
And please don’t make the mistake I made last night: you should definitely get dressed first.